Travel Special: February - South Australia

Dennis and Henry are Australian sea lions and this is their territory: Baird Bay, a tranquil spot on the Eyre Peninsula, in South Australia. They live and breed on a little island in the bay, where their patrons are Trish and Alan Payne, respected eco-tourism operators who take small groups of visitors out to meet them.

This is one of a very few places in the world where you can swim with sea lions in the wild, and it is a remarkable experience. It takes place entirely on their terms; there is strictly no feeding, and the humans wait to be approached. If the animals are not in the mood, they are left alone.

In practice, this rarely happens, because sea lions - despite their rather grumpy image - love to play and interact with people. "They're really gentle creatures, unbelievably friendly, quite exceptional," says Alan.

The Paynes, who are from Western Australia, visited Baird Bay on a motorbiking holiday and decided to move there. They have built two beautiful apartments overlooking the deserted beach, where flocks of pelicans congregate on the sand and cormorants and herons use the calm waters as a landing strip.

Baird Bay, a little fishing village, is well off the beaten track, about 460 miles north-west of Adelaide. As well as the sea lions, which are an endangered species, the bay is home to a healthy population of dolphins. West of the township lies the Nullarbor Plain, a massive, barren chunk of limestone that separates the population centres of south-eastern Australia from south-west.

The Paynes have been swimming with the sea lions and dolphins since the early 1990s. It was the animals that initiated it; an inquisitive young sea lion approached their boat one day when they were out fishing, and Alan could not resist slipping into the water.

Trish has developed a special affinity with the dolphins, while Alan, a tough-looking former sheep shearer, has a similar relationship with the sea lions. Dennis, his favourite, used to swim up and lie in Alan's arms, resting his head on his shoulder, when he was a pup. He nurses the creatures when they are sick.

As we draw near, Alan calls out, "Hey girl, what you up to?" to a cheeky-looking female. The sight of him sends the sea lions manic with excitement, and soon a group of them are circling our small boat.

The sea lions are plainly keen to frolic. As soon as we enter the water, they glide towards us. Diving down, they nudge us playfully with their noses and copy our movements, rolling over and performing acrobatics. They plunge down beneath us and lie on the sandy bottom, looking up at us adoringly, like Labradors. It is utterly enchanting.

So why do sea lions have the reputation of being snappy close up? Trish blames human behaviour towards them in the past. When she first moved to Baird Bay, the fishermen told her that "the only good sea lion is a dead one". She says: "They just see them as great lumps of blubber that eat their fish."

By getting to know them and treating them with respect, the Paynes have restored their instinctive trust. But Trish adds that while they are friendly in the water, where they are in their own environment and completely in control, they can still be hostile when approached on the beach, where they sleep.

"It's like rocking up at someone's house at 2am after they've had a hard night out and waking them up. It's their bedroom and you're disturbing their privacy."

About 70 sea lions live on the island; people are not allowed to land. From the boat, we can see a black pup racing around in circles, chasing the shadows of birds flying overhead.

That evening the Paynes barbecue a fantastic array of seafood for us; it is a meal to savour and remember. But it is the sea lions gambolling underwater, and the little pup on the island, that stick in my head.

For more information see

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine